Goaltending is arguably the hardest position at which to draft teenage players and develop them into NHL pros in your own organization. There's an enormous amount of guesswork involved, and the limited signing window after a team drafts the player means that decisions have to made years ahead of when the young player's NHL prospects are even somewhat clear. Goalies usually emerge (and decline) later than position players.
If the Flyers had signed Joacim Eriksson, they would have had to commit a three-year entry-level contract to a player who has all of 17 games worth of Elitserien experience at the present time and who never played in either the U18 or U20 World Junior Championships. The team would have had to have paid him for at least one -- and probably two -- seasons to continue developing in Sweden on the hope that he would then be ready to come over. Even then, the final year of his ELC may have spent as in the AHL or an as NHL backup.
Eriksson remains a good prospect, but since a contract decision needed to be made on him right now, the Flyers opted to pass on signing him. It's a decision that could end up looking bad in hindsight but is justifiable based on the player's current timetable. That's especially true because the Flyers already signed Niko Hovinen, who is older and closer to being ready to come over. If the team had not signed Hovinen, I think they would have been more likely to sign Eriksson. Finally, keep in mind that losing Eriksson's rights now does not preclude the possibility of the Flyers taking another shot at him in the future.
Under the old system, which allowed NHL teams to hold Euro draftees' rights for years and years, the Flyers would have just sat tight and allowed Eriksson all the time he needs. That's not an option any more with players from Sweden or Finland (more on that in the next section).
Likewise, people have asked why the Flyers didn't Memorial Cup standout Jacob De Serres (third round pick in 2008) to an entry level contract before his rights expired last year. That's because De Serres had done very little within his signing window to suggest that he was ready for professional hockey. He was never particularly impressive at the Flyers' rookie camps or in the annual rookie game against the Caps' prospects. Even now, a strong run as a junior league overager does not make De Serres an NHL prospect. I think he can play in the pros -- ECHL, at least -- and from there, you go year to year and re-evaluate where he stands.
The Flyers did not 2009 sign third-round pick Adam Morrison (their top pick in that draft) by the June 1 deadline this year for the same reasons that they did not sign De Serres or Eriksson. There is a veteran logjam on the Phantoms, and Morrison is not presently ready to push for a job in the AHL. Nic Riopel was signed on a straight-up minor league contract last year and mostly played in the ECHL. The Flyers no longer hold his NHL rights.
On the flip side of the coin, the Flyers benefited from the system in the Niko Hovinen situation. In 2006, the Minnesota Wild used a 5th round draft choice on the 6-foot-7 Finn. Unfortunately for the Wild, Hovinen was a very late bloomer, who only sorted out his mechanical issues and started to conquer some of the mental aspects of goaltending over the last or two. By the time he came into his own on a lousy Lahti Pelicans team, the Wild had lost his rights and the Flyers signed the now 23-year-old prospect.
I really think that the drafting rules for European players need to be changed again. I don't think NHL teams should again be allowed to hold onto Euro draftees' rights as long as they want, but I think the system needs to streamlined and made fair to all parties.
After the end of the lockout that wiped out the 2005-06 NHL season, the new CBA placed draftees from Europe under the same rules that apply to players selected from the Canadian major junior leagues (OHL, WHL, QMJHL): the drafting team has two years to sign the player.
Subsequently, when the various European hockey federations (first the KHL and then the other major Euro nations) dropped out of the transfer agreement negotiated between the NHL and IIHF, NHL clubs were left scrambling to figure out what to do with the draft rights to European players. What they decided to do was, at the end of the two-year window, to extend the players' rights by one year. In each successive year that there was no transfer agreement, the rights were retained an additional year.
Eventually, the NHL reached transfer agreements with the Swedish and Finnish federations. That's why the Flyers no longer hold the rights to Eriksson (drafted in 2008) or defenseman Simon Bertilsson (drafted 2009).
There still is no official agreement with the Czech federation. Paul Holmgren confirmed for me yesterday that the Flyers still hold the rights to goaltender Jakub Kovar, despite the fact that he was drafted in 2006. Kovar was still affiliated with HC Ceske Budejovice at the time of the 2006 draft, although he was selected in the CHL import draft by the Oshawa Generals in 2006 and joined the club the following season. As a result, his rights fall under the Euro rules. Without a transfer agreement with the Czechs, the Flyers' rights to Kovar were extended each year from 2008 to the present time.
Bottom line: Five years after being drafted, Kovar's rights still belong to the Flyers, whereas Philly has lost the rights to the Swedish players who were drafted two and three years ago.
Does this arrangement make sense to anyone? I propose that the system be changed for NHL teams to hold onto the rights of any Euro draftee -- regardless of the current transfer status of his national federation -- for the same amount of time. Ideally, I think it would be fair if position players' rights were held for four years and goalies' rights for five. That would give the players more time to stay at home and establish themselves in their home elite leagues, without players being rushed over here and NHL teams being forced to make wild-guess ELC signings simply to hold players' rights.
At one point in the late 1990s, the Flyers seemed to have a wealth of goaltending prospects in the system. As a matter of fact, goaltending prospect depth was considered the biggest strength of the farm system.
In 1995, they used their first-round pick to select Brian Boucher (generally considered the fourth best goalie prospect in the draft, behind Martin Biron, J-S Giguere and Marc Denis). As of 1999, he looked to be on track to graduate to the NHL in the near future.
In the 1996 draft, the Flyers took Swedish goaltender Per-Ragnar Bergkvist, in the 5th round (124th overall), largely because Bergkvist had outplayed Boucher head-to-head at the World Junior Championships. Unfortunately, Bergkvist proved to be a flash in the pan and never became even an average Elitserien goalie. In 1999, however, he had a brief revival with Färjestad and was at least considered a fringe prospect.
In the 1997 draft, the Flyers used their first pick of the draft -- 30th overall -- to select Jean-Marc Pelletier. He made a quick splash with the Phantoms in 1998-99 and even earned a start with the big club (which didn't go very well) while the club was struggling and looking for a spark. Although his stock soon fell, Pelletier looked like a fine NHL prospect in the summer of 1999.
In the 1998 draft, the Flyers took Antero Niitymäki in the 6th round (168th overall). A product of the TPS Turku system -- which produced a string of future NHL goalies -- Niittymäki got an extended chance to play with the TPS team in SM-Liiga when Fredrik Norrena went down with an injury. Niitty ended up winning the 1999-2000 Rookie of the Year award in SM-Liiga and TPS won the championship.
In the 1999 draft, the Flyers selected Maxime Ouellet in the first round after Boston snapped up defenseman Nick Boyton (a draft re-entry after he was selected 9th overall by Washington in 1997 but did not sign a contract) one pick earlier. Considered by many to be the best goalie available in the draft, Ouellet would go to play for Team Canada at the WJC and actually started the 2000-01 season on the Flyers' NHL roster before being returned to the QMJHL.
Of course we know what happened to this "stellar" pool of prospects. One by one, they fell by the wayside.
Boucher had an amazing NHL rookie season and led the Flyers to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1999-2000. He faltered badly in his second season and lost his job to Roman Cechmanek (drafted by the Flyers at age 29 in the 6th round of the 2000 NHL draft after he won five straight Czech championships with HC Vsetin). Boosh ended up becoming a journeyman backup goalie who spent three stints -- two in the NHL -- with the Flyers' organization.
After flopping with Leksand and playing a year in Norway, Bergkvist's brief revival with FBK didn't last beyond the first month of the 1999-2000 season. He ended up playing his way down to third-string goalie and faded away from the hockey scene.
Pelletier's cockiness was considered a plus when he stepped up in the first half of his rookie pro season with the Phantoms, but soon started to work against him as he leveled off and gained the reputation for being uncoachable. He ended up being traded to Carolina in the deal that brought Keith Primeau to Philadelphia and sent Rod Brind'Amour to the Hurricanes. Pelletier turned into pretty much a career minor-league goaltender.
Niittymäki ended up being arguably the best of the bunch, if you exclude Cechmanek. Niitty won three straight Finnish championships, a Calder Cup, an AHL playoff MVP award, an Olympic silver medal and Olympic MVP award. But he has only spotty success in the NHL. Like Boucher, he has never been able to keep a starting job in the NHL, and he did not prove to be the answer to the Flyers' search for a long-term answer in goal.
Ouellet's flaws started to become apparent soon after he graduated from junior to professional hockey. He was still highly regarded at the time the Flyers sent him to Washington in the ill-fated Adam Oates rental. However, his game never progressed and, like Pelletier, he ended up becoming more or less a career minor leaguer.
Cechmanek was not prospect age by the time he entered the Flyers' organization, so I will not discuss him at length in this blog. If you are interested in my take on Cechmanek's time in Philly, see this blog
from last year where I discussed my "Flyers All-Decade Team" of the 2000s.
At any rate, the purpose for going back and looking at all of those draftees from that mid- to late-1990s time frame is to show that, of all positions on the ice, goalies are truly the hardest to predict once they turn pro in North America. No matter what they do in collegiate or Canadian junior hockey, the World Junior Championships or even the top European pro leagues, it's a whole different ballgame once they get to the NHL.
Are the Flyers' better off now in terms of goaltending prospects than they were in 1999? Well, Sergei Bobrovsky has a full year of NHL experience under his belt, and he has shown a lot of promise. Consistency takes time with young goalies.
In terms of system depth beyond Bobrovsky, the Flyers have nowhere near the prospect depth in their current system that they seemed to have as the 2000s drew near. Hovinen is still a dark horse prospect, and I don't think Kovar is ever coming over. Johan Backlund is 30 years old and his window has pretty much closed.
Coming tomorrow: An in-depth discussion on Hovinen, Backlund and Kovar.